Trump legal news brief: Judge hands Trump another defeat, blocking 'fishing expedition' subpoena to NBC over Stormy Daniels documentary

Judge Juan Merchan blocks an attempt by former President Donald Trump to force NBCUniversal to hand over information about the release of its recent documentary about adult film star Stormy Daniels. The ruling comes two days after Merchan refused to delay the April 15 start of the hush money trial in which Trump is accused of breaking state tax and campaign finance laws by paying off Daniels to hide an alleged extramarital affair. Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

New York hush money

Key players: Judge Juan Merchan, adult film star Stormy Daniels, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg

On Friday, Merchan blocked a subpoena Trump's lawyers had issued to NBCUniversal for information on the timing of the release of "Stormy," a documentary about Daniels, who is a star witness in Bragg's case against the former president, Reuters reported.

Trump’s lawyers issued their subpoena one week before the trial was initially scheduled to start, a point that Merchan noted in his ruling.

"His subpoena and the demands therein are the very definition of a fishing expedition," the judge wrote.

Defending the subpoena, Trump’s lawyers said that the documents it would force NBCUniversal to hand over would "establish collusion” between Daniels and the company about the March 18 release date of the film.

Lawyers for NBCUniversal said that Daniels had no input or approval of the content of the documentary or its release date.

Merchan called the assertion by Trump’s lawyers “purely speculative.”

"The Court has considered Defendant's explanation for seeking this court's permission to rifle through the privileged documents of a news organization and finds that he has not shouldered the very heavy burden necessary to overcome NY civil rights law," the judge added.

Why it matters: Trump has worked diligently to have the charges against him dropped and to delay the start of the trial. Merchan's latest ruling shows that the judge has grown impatient with those efforts.

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Thursday, April 4

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Judge Aileen Cannon denies former President Donald Trump’s motion to have criminal charges dropped in the classified documents case on the grounds that the Presidential Records Act (PRA) permitted him to keep them in his home after leaving the White House. In the Georgia election interference case, meanwhile, Judge Scott McAfee rejects a motion brought by Trump that sought to have all the charges dropped on the grounds that the First Amendment protects political speech. In his ruling, the judge makes clear that political speech can be prosecuted if it is “used to further criminal activity.” Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee for 2024.

Classified documents

Judge refuses to dismiss classified documents charges against Trump

Key players: Judge Aileen Cannon, special counsel Jack Smith

On Thursday, Cannon rejected a motion by Trump to have the charges against him in the classified documents case dropped on the grounds that the PRA grants former presidents the right to retain such materials even after leaving the White House, ABC News reported.

In her ruling, Cannon, a Trump appointee, wrote that “the Presidential Records Act does not provide a pre-trial basis to dismiss.”

Cannon’s wording leaves open the possibility that the judge could dismiss the felony charges against Trump during the trial.

She also took a swipe at Smith, who on Wednesday asked Cannon to drop her “fundamentally flawed” request for jury instructions that suggested she was sympathetic to Trump’s arguments about the protections guaranteed by the PRA.

Smith had made clear that if Cannon did not reverse herself on the jury instructions, he was prepared to take the issue to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which could force her to change course.

In Thursday’s ruling, Smith described her jury instructions as “a genuine attempt, in the context of the upcoming trial, to better understand the parties’ competing positions and the questions to be submitted to the jury in this complex case of first impression.”

Cannon added that “any party remains free to avail itself of whatever appellate options it sees fit to invoke, as permitted by law.”

Why it matters: While Cannon has rejected two motions from Trump to dismiss all of the charges against him, her rulings have also given the former president reason to hope that she will ultimately side with him if and when the case goes to trial.

Georgia election interference

Judge denies Trump motion to dismiss all charges

Key players: Judge Scott McAfee, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, Trump lawyer Steve Sadow

On Thursday, McAfee rejected a motion by Trump's lawyers to dismiss all charges in the Georgia election interference case on the grounds that his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election are protected by the First Amendment, the Associated Press reported.

“Even core political speech addressing matters of public concern is not impenetrable from prosecution if allegedly used to further criminal activity,” McAfee wrote.

In their motion, Trump’s lawyers had argued that the “core political speech and expressive conduct alleged in this indictment against President Trump are protected from government regulation and thus criminal prosecution by the State.”

Willis charged Trump with 13 felony counts, including a violation of state racketeering laws, stemming from the plot to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state in 2020. McAfee has since dismissed three of the counts, saying they lacked specificity.

Responding to McAfee’s ruling on Thursday, Sadow said he and his client “respectfully disagree with Judge McAfee’s order and will continue to evaluate their options regarding the First Amendment challenges.”

Why it matters: Trump's long-shot bid to have the charges dismissed in Georgia is just his latest attempt to derail the four criminal trials he faces. While McAfee did not buy the arguments by Trump's lawyers that the First Amendment prevents him from being prosecuted for his actions to reverse the election results, he did allow that they could raise such arguments during the trial.

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Wednesday, April 3

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Judge Juan Merchan denies a motion by Donald Trump that sought to delay the April 15 start of the hush money trial until after the United States Supreme Court ruled on whether presidential immunity protects him from prosecution. In the classified documents case, meanwhile, prosecutors on special counsel Jack Smith’s team ask Judge Aileen Cannon to reverse herself on her proposed instructions to jurors in Trump’s as-yet-to-be-scheduled trial. If she does not, they tell Cannon that they could seek a “writ of mandamus” to force her to do so. Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

New York hush money

Judge denies Trump motion to delay start of trial

Key players: Judge Juan Merchan, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, adult film star Stormy Daniels, United States Supreme Court

Merchan denied a last-ditch motion by Trump's lawyers that sought to delay the start of the hush money trial by 90 days or dismiss the charges outright on the grounds that the United States Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether presidential immunity protects Trump from prosecution, USA Today reported.

In his ruling, Merchan stated that Trump had waited too long to pursue the presidential immunity claim in the hush money case.

“This Court finds that Defendant had myriad opportunities to raise the claim of presidential immunity well before March 7, 2024. After all, Defendant had already briefed the same issue in federal court and he was in possession of, and aware that, the People intended to offer the relevant evidence at trial that entire time. The circumstances, viewed as a whole, test this Court’s credulity,” Merchan wrote.

Some of the evidence that will be used in Bragg’s case against Trump was gathered when Trump was president and his lawyers argue that it should not be permissible in court.

The trial on charges that Trump broke New York state tax and campaign finance laws when he paid Daniels $130,000 to hide an alleged extramarital affair from voters in the 2016 election begins on April 15.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on April 25 on whether presidential immunity protects Trump from being prosecuted for his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Why it matters: With Monday's ruling expanding Trump's gag order and Wednesday's rejection of Trump's request for a delay, Merchan has signaled that he has lost patience with the former president's tactics in the case.

Classified documents

Smith asks Cannon to drop ‘flawed’ jury instructions or face appeal

Key players: Special counsel Jack Smith, Judge Aileen Cannon

Late Tuesday, Smith issued a stern rebuke of Cannon's "fundamentally flawed legal premise" when she asked lawyers in the case for potential jury instructions that appeared to side with Trump's argument that the Presidential Records Act (PRA) justified his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House, the Associated Press reported.

“If the Court wrongly concludes that it does, and that it intends to include the PRA in the jury instructions regarding what is authorized … it must inform the parties of that decision well in advance of the trial,” prosecutors wrote.

Smith, who has charged Trump with violating the Espionage Act, argues in the filing that the PRA does not apply in this case since the crimes Trump is accused of committing took place after he was president.

Trump’s lawyers have countered that the PRA allows a president to distinguish certain documents as “personal records” even after leaving the White House and that Trump never knowingly retained classified documents that did not fall under that category.

Smith's filing also warns Cannon that if she does not retract her request for jury instructions regarding the PRA, prosecutors are prepared to obtain a "writ of mandamus" to force her to do so.

A writ of mandamus, according to the Justice Department, can be used "to require a lower court to enforce the judgment of an appellate court." In this case, Smith would ask the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to issue one should Cannon, who was appointed to the federal bench by Trump, not reverse course.

The 11th Circuit has already overruled Cannon's moves in the case so far.

Why it matters: While Smith has not gone so far as to seek to remove Cannon from the documents case, Tuesday's filing is the clearest sign yet that he sees her as an obstacle to the prospect of obtaining a fair trial for the former president.

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Tuesday, April 2

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Knight Specialty Insurance loans former President Donald Trump $175 million to cover the bond required to prevent New York Attorney General Letitia James from seizing his assets while he appeals the $454 million judgment in his financial fraud trial. The company is owned by billionaire Don Hankey, a Trump voter who has made his fortune offering high-interest, subprime car loans to people with bad credit. Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

New York financial fraud

Knight Specialty Insurance pays Trump’s $175 million fraud trial bond

Key players: Knight Specialty Insurance CEO Don Hankey, Judge Arthur Engoron, New York Attorney General Letitia James, Trump attorney Alina Habba

On Monday, the Knight Specialty Insurance Co. loaned Trump $175 million to cover his bond in the civil financial fraud trial, Bloomberg reported. The company is owned by Hankey, who said he approached Trump about the loan.

"This is what we do at Knight Insurance, and we're happy to do this for anyone who needs a bond," Hankey toldthe Associated Press.

Last month, a New York appeals court judge lowered the bond amount from $464 million (110% of Egoron's judgment) to $175 million after Trump’s lawyers said they had been turned down by 30 lenders to secure the higher amount.

“Yes, I voted for him in the past, but this is a business deal and this is what we do,” Hankey said of the loan, which, he added, Trump secured using cash as collateral.

By posting the $175 million bond, Trump prevents James from seizing his assets while he appeals Engoron’s judgment.

The New York state Appellate Division has said it would hear arguments in September.

If Trump wins on appeal, he will get the bond amount back. If he loses, he will immediately owe the rest of the original judgment plus the interest accrued since the date of the Engoron’s original ruling.

Why it matters: While Trump indicated during the financial fraud trial that he had nearly half a billion in cash reserves, he told the appeals court judge that he wanted to keep that free to use for the 2024 presidential campaign. Having secured a loan from Hankey's company, he is now free, at least for the meantime, to spend it on that.

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Monday, April 1

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Following several attacks on his daughter by former President Donald Trump, Judge Juan Merchan expands his gag order in the hush money trial to include family members. Hope Hicks, who served as Trump’s press secretary and communications director in the 2016 campaign, is expected to be called as a witness in the New York hush money trial that begins on April 15, a source tells MSNBC. Since leaving her post as a top White House adviser in 2018, Hicks has testified before the New York grand jury investigating Trump’s payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, as well as before the House Jan. 6 select committee. Here are the latest legal developments facing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

New York hush money

Judge expands gag order

Key players: Judge Juan Merchan, Democratic political consultant Loren Merchan, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg

On Monday, the New York judge in the hush money trial set to begin on April 15 expanded the gag order he placed on Trump meant to prevent him from attacking potential witnesses, jury members, and court staff so that it now includes family members of that group, the Associated Press reported.

“This pattern of attacking family members of presiding jurists and attorneys assigned to his cases serves no legitimate purpose,” Merchan wrote in his order. “It merely injects fear in those assigned or called to participate in the proceedings that not only they, but their family members as well, are ‘fair game,’ for Defendant's vitriol."

On Truth Social, Trump's social media platform, the former president had targeted the judge's daughter, Loren Merchan, falsely accusing her of posting a photo of Trump behind bars and claiming that she "makes money by working to 'Get Trump.'"

Earlier in the day, Bragg had asked the judge to expand the gag order, saying Trump's "dangerous, violent, and reprehensible rhetoric fundamentally threatens the integrity of these proceedings."

Why it matters: Merchan has shown little hesitation to rule against Trump in the case so far, and Trump has seemed intent on pushing the judge's limits. If that continues and Trump defies the judge's orders, he could face the prospect of jail time.

Source: Hope Hicks to testify in hush money case

Key players: Former communications director and press secretary for Trump's 2016 presidential campaign Hope Hicks, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, adult film star Stormy Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, former American Media CEO David Pecker, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg

Bragg will call Hicks as a prosecution witness in the hush money trial that begins on April 15, a source told MSNBC.

Last year, Hicks testified before the New York grand jury that voted to indict Trump on charges that he broke campaign finance and tax laws when he paid Daniels in 2016 to hide an alleged extramarital affair.

Cohen alleges that Hicks was part of a phone call that took place on Oct. 8, 2016, during which Daniels told Trump she was going to share her story of the affair with the National Enquirer.

Hicks, according to Cohen, was also on a call during which a deal was reached for Trump to pay Daniels $130,000 for her silence.

Hicks went on to become a top White House adviser to Trump following his victory in the 2016 election, but stepped down in 2018.

Hicks also testified before the House Jan. 6 select committee that she told Trump that there wasn't evidence to support his claims that the 2020 presidential election was "rigged."

Prosecutors say Pecker met Trump in 2015 and set up a “catch or kill” arrangement by which the National Enquirer would pay McDougal for her story about an alleged extramarital affair with Trump only to keep it from ever being published.

Pecker and McDougal are also both expected to be called as witnesses during the trial.

Why it matters: While Hicks was long a trusted member of Trump's inner circle, she has cooperated with those who have investigated the former president's conduct. If Bragg does call her to the witness stand, it will be because he believes she will bolster his case.

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